Elmer Crowell knew his talent for making wooden waterfowl decoys was extraordinary. The East Harwich, Mass., man, who died in 1954 at the age of 90, produced more than 2,000 bird sculptures in a variety of shapes, sizes, and species. Crowell’s prowess with a paintbrush enabled him to evoke the delicate pattern of a Canada goose’s cream and brown feathers, and with his carving skills, he could shape slender necks, arched wings, and expressive beaks.
As talented as he was, and as realistic as his creations are, Crowell could not have imagined that one of them would command a seven-digit bid at auction. That threshold has not been reached yet, but Gary Guyette and Frank Schmidt are convinced that the first million-dollar decoy will sell sometime in the next few years. In all likelihood, that decoy will be one that Crowell carved, and Guyette and Schmidt will hammer down the final bid.
The men partnered to form their eponymous Farmington, Maine, auction house in 1991, but both have been involved with decoy collecting for more than three decades, during which they have seen explosive growth in the field. “When we started collecting, no decoy sold for more than $10,000,” says the 54-year-old Guyette. “In 1973, a curlew [a type of shorebird] by William Bowman sold for $10,500. We sold the same bird again in 2000 for $464,500.” Schmidt, 61, adds, “Prices are being pushed up at all levels. Decoys that once brought $500 are now bringing $1,500.”
The first Guyette & Schmidt auction of the year, held in April in St. Charles, Ill., garnered $4.3 million, with eight decoys breaking the six-figure mark. (Guyette & Schmidt will hold its third and final 2004 auction in Easton, Md., on November 10 and 11.) The three priciest decoys to date are all Crowell creations, including a preening pintail drake that sold for a record $801,500 in January 2003 at a New York sale jointly conducted by Guyette & Schmidt and Christie’s.
Collectors also favor prime pieces by Bowman, Augustus Wilson, John Dawson, Thomas Chambers, and the Mason Decoy Factory, but unlike Crowell, these other folk artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries may not have consistently signed their works, or they failed to mark them indelibly. With decoys, as with most collectibles, provenance matters, and well-crafted decoys with well-documented origins are the most valuable.
Not all decoys are designed to fool only birds. Demand for wooden waterfowl has become strong enough to attract counterfeiters to the market. However, notes Guyette, carvers of bogus birds rarely succeed. “Many fakes are done from photos, which makes them real easy to spot,” he says. As an example, Guyette cites a red-breasted merganser duck allegedly carved by Edwin Backman that was exposed as a fake when someone discovered its underside was unpainted. Apparently, the forger copied only what was in the photo, not realizing that Backman had painted the bottom of the real decoy.
Guyette & Schmidt